For The Blackhawks' Ben Smith, Music Connects A Talented Family
Some of Ben Smith's earliest memories are of waking to the sound of his mother, former concert pianist-turned-teacher Marguerita Oundjian Smith, practicing the piano in the next room.
It was the start of what would be a lifelong connection to music for Ben Smith, now an emerging right winger for the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago won the Stanley Cup two years ago and now sits near the top of the NHL standings, with Smith, 26, playing a key role.
When he wasn't bouncing around between hockey practices and games, he would join his mother and three brothers at his father's concerts. Larry Alan Smith is an award-winning composer, accomplished pianist and professor of composition at the University of Hartford.
Growing up, Ben played the guitar and trombone and sang bass in the chorale and chamber choir at Westminster School, a small boarding school in Simsbury, Connecticut. These days, he says, he might be able to play a scale or two on the trombone and a bit on the guitar, but he admits he's let his skills lapse. He still sings but mostly in the shower or while driving -- and almost never in front of others.
"I don't like listening to my own voice as much these days," he said.
It used to be Ben was prodded into performing at least once a year, when a couple songs from the "Smith Brothers Band" would highlight every family Christmas celebration.
"The music began with their English grandmother, who would come every year for a week over Christmas when the children were young," Marguerita said. "She liked to be entertained, and the annual concert became the highlight of her Christmas. As they got older, some of them were a little less willing, but they always organized something -- playing instruments, singing, etc., to avoid disappointing her. It was informal and often very funny."
Marguerita remembers the boys singing from the Metropolitan Museum of Art book of carols, but Ben's fondest memories are of singing country covers. Ben would sing, James would play piano, Chris (who recently left a career in finance to open a brewery in Williamsburg, Virginia) would play the guitar and drums, and youngest brother Will (a former soccer player at William & Mary) would play the guitar and sing. Will is still a performer; he posts original songs to his Facebook page and plays small gigs in London while he pursues a master's degree at Oxford.
With such busy schedules, it's no wonder the family has trouble getting everyone together.
It's nice to be around people who have done well and succeeded. It's a good example for you to see how hard they work and what it has taken for them to get where they are.Ben Smith
On Thursday, two days after burying the empty-netter that sealed a seventh straight home win for the Blackhawks, Ben spent a rare day off with James. The two caught up before they had to go their separate ways for work -- Ben to Navy Pier to sign autographs at the annual season-ticket holders party, James to the Harris Theater to play the Bach Brandenburg Concertos as a virtuoso oboist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Ben usually watches his brother's annual performance, but this year, team responsibilities kept him away. It seems ever since Ben set his sights on the pros, everything else has taken a backseat to hockey.
The weekend after Labor Day was the family's only chance this year to get all four brothers and parents in the same place. Ben had planned to head West with his parents for the holidays, but Marguerita suffered a fall and had to have wrist surgery, so Christmas in Connecticut it is.
With Marguerita sidelined (upper-body injury) and the family's other professional musicians looking for a break from work, Larry says songs around the piano might not happen this year. "I think that the musicians will be on vacation," he said.
The family hockey matches that used to take place every Christmas have fallen dormant as well, as schedules become tougher to coordinate. Plus, Ben prefers to stay on solid ground when he's on vacation. He gets more than enough time on the ice with the Blackhawks, who are tops in the Central Division and hoping to make a run to their third Stanley Cup Final in six years.
Ben says his parents have long been OK with his decision to focus more on the skating than the scales.
"They're excited that it's something different to broaden their horizons," he said. "It's all pretty similar, though, the approach. I talk to my parents and my brother, James, about it a lot, how it's all performance-based. The preparation is very similar, and the pressure is very similar, so it's nice to be able to draw from what they've been through and learn from them."
Although there might not be an exact musical equivalent to playing in a Stanley Cup final, Ben says James' international oboe competitions come pretty close.
"He has competed in some big festivals and finished, like, 10th in the world," Ben said. "It's a lot tougher, I think, being up there playing by yourself, compared to being on a team. By yourself, it can be obvious when you make a mistake."
Failure is as much a part of a musician's life as an athlete's, so Ben's family of performers understands what he feels after a bad game or a big loss.
"There are the obvious opportunities for 'losing' in music," Marguerita said. "Participating in music competitions [which are part of a musician's training], applying to top music schools [which are highly selective] and taking competitive auditions for jobs throughout one's life. The less obvious disappointment is performing below one's potential. Understanding this, we have never dwelled on any disappointments Ben has experienced, as we know he is his own most severe critic. Instead, we have always tried to encourage him to keep a positive attitude when facing challenges."
Ben's parents and siblings aren't the only positive role models in his life. Three of his uncles have achieved considerable fame in -- what else? -- music or skating. Peter Oundjian is the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Haig Oundjian was a two-time Olympian in singles figure skating, and Bob Lindberg was a minor leaguer for the Detroit Red Wings and a successful forward in the Swiss league. And we mustn't forget about Ben's second cousin, Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame. Ben and his family went to see Idle's "Spamalot" on Broadway a few years ago, and Ben often trades tweets with the famed comedian.
"It's nice to be around people who have done well and succeeded," Ben said. "It's a good example for you to see how hard they work and what it has taken for them to get where they are."
Ben's hard work has already earned him a championship ring and his name forever etched on the Stanley Cup. His parents rode with him in the team's championship parade in 2013, and as is often the case in the Smith family, talk inevitably turned to music.
"The hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets were generating acoustic sounds that were being amplified by Chicago's magnificent architecture," said Larry, ever the composer. "It was incredible how the sounds would change as we moved from intersection to intersection along the parade route. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before."
The experience was so moving, it got Larry thinking about an unprecedented collaboration. "The idea of mixing the sounds of the cheering crowds from the 2013 parade with music for a large symphony orchestra has not been forgotten," he said. "Stay tuned."
If all goes well for Ben and the Blackhawks, Larry might be taking in the tones of another parade at the end of this season. And who knows? The 2015 melody might be even sweeter.